The new year is a popular time to plan a new start, but setting lots of goals for yourself is rarely the most effective way to move forward. Being a parent is hard work, and parenting other people’s children is particularly hard. Setting all sorts of new goals for yourself may just be setting you and your family up for failure. Instead take the time to evaluate and plan for small wins. Before you jump into the new year, or find yourself overwhelmed with the chaos of everyday life, taking some time to evaluate your many to-do lists and plan some achievable goals will help you have a much less stressful year.
I gave up on New Year’s resolutions long ago, mainly because my enthusiasm and good intentions always outstripped my ability to follow through. I usually ended up feeling worse about my failures than excited about my successes. Instead, I have found it more helpful to adapt a business management technique that I learned in my law practice. I now use the time after the winter holidays to slow down, regroup, and plan ahead as much as I can for both my professional and personal lives. The following steps are the ones that I have found most useful, but go with whatever system works for your family.
The first step, which can be the hardest, is to slow down for a bit. I learned this lesson the hard way, that is from not doing it enough and having to deal with the negative consequences. I was often so busy checking off my to-do lists that I didn’t take the time I needed to include my husband in the planning process. It took me longer than it should have to learn to take some deep breaths, and then clear my schedule for a day or two.
Get someone to watch the kids while you and your spouse spend some time reconnecting and recharging. Give yourself a parental time-out. Taking this time away may feel selfish, but it’s essential to having any semblance of control over your schedule. You need some time with limited distractions to be able to discuss what’s happening now and what you want to happen this year. Whether you can carve out a day or a weekend, a little planning will pay huge dividends for your family life.
Of course, you’ll need buy-in from the entire family, so at some point you will need to include all of your kids in the planning process. But for this initial step, you need to spend adult time laying the groundwork. Your marriage is the foundation of the family relationships, and this time is a great way to support your marriage and strengthen that foundation. You need to be sure that you both are in agreement, and you need time without the kids to reinforce your bonds with each other. The more time you can spend strengthening your marriage and planning together, the better you will be able to weather any tough times that are ahead.
The next step is to take a long and clear look at where you are and what’s happening in your family life. Perhaps you can adapt the popular business SWOT analysis to look at your family strengths and weaknesses. The most important factor in this step is taking the time to figure out ways to leverage the strengths and shore up the weaknesses in your family relationships.
Start with your family strengths and spend a lot of time thinking through what you’ve done well. Even if you feel that you haven’t done anything right in the past year, start writing down every small success that you experienced. Did you successfully bit your tongue when your child’s bio-parent said something snide? Put it on the list. Can you remember times that you responded calmly when your child went into after-school meltdowns? Put them on the list. What are the ways in which you were a better parent than last year? Put them on the list. As you write, you undoubtedly will remember more small successes to write down. Having a tangible list will help you understand that your family accomplished more than you realized, and it will help give you confidence to plan for the future.
When you start considering weak spots in your relationships, give yourself grace and concentrate on things that are within your control. Do you have a bad relationship with one of your children? Is your child’s bio-parent antagonistic and disruptive? Do family members struggle with anxiety disorders? Have your adult children rejected you? Is emotional regulation a challenge for your child? Don’t focus on on anyone else's behavior, as you can't control anyone else. Instead, concentrate on your reactions, such as keeping open lines of communication and doing what you can to meet your children's emotional needs. If you have been able to keep your cool and be gracious to obnoxious family members, then count it as a strength. If you have let someone provoke you, then count that a a weakness that you need to work on. Either way, model what we all tell our children and control only what you can control.
This evaluation step may be the most difficult, since it’s often hard to develop a clear picture of our families. We tend to be too hard on ourselves in some respects and excuse ourselves in others. It's essential that you make a conscious effort both to give yourself grace -- no one is perfect -- and to be as objective and balanced as you can. In this area, like many similar situations in parenting, you don't have to be perfect. The best you can do will be enough.
After listing all of the family strengths that you can count on and the weaknesses that you want to work on, start brainstorming ways that you can leverage the strengths and shore up the weaknesses. Be realistic and aim for simple solutions. In fact, it’s a good idea to use this time to figure out how you can simplify your life and limit as much as possible the demands on your time and schedule.
First, figure out which are your highest priorities. Be ruthless here. Not everything can be a high priority. Start with the things you have to do, such as court-ordered visitation or school transportation or other tasks that are not negotiable. Then concentrate on the important things that I have described earlier — self-care, your marriage, and your relationships with your children. Obviously, you have to fit your work and career onto the priority list, but be sure that it’s balanced against your personal obligations. Children generally do not adjust well to having to compete with a job for their parents’ attention. You also may have new priorities because of the season of life that you are in, such as caring for an elderly parent or a new visitation schedule. Decide how to rank and balance these responsibilities, and then fit everything else into that set of priorities.
At some point, you will have to decide what things you can take off your lists. Are there things that you can stop doing or perhaps just delay for a while? Are there any tasks that you can delegate to another responsible person? This analysis likely will be difficult, because most of us are so used to taking care of everything for everyone. You need to be realistic, however, and recognize that you are only human with human limitations. Don’t spend so much time trying to do everything that you shortchange important and essential tasks.
Above all, be willing to ask your network for help. If you need money for a foster child’s extracurricular activities, ask your church or nonprofit groups for help. If you need transportation for your stepchild to visit with biological family, ask extended family members if they can pitch in. Give your friends and family the opportunity to help.
Try to find time to reconnect with family or friends this year. Perhaps you can prioritize it as part of your self-care or building your network. Whether we are stepparents or foster parents, we need the support of adult relationships. We don’t have to schedule lunch every week; even periodic messages on social media can keep us connected. If you are short on time, pick just one or two people to touch base with. Of course, all of the usual caveats apply — be sure that these people don’t just add more stress to your life and definitely establish healthy boundaries with them. Assuming we are able to establish healthy friendships and family relationships, we can benefit from adding more people to our circles. Humans are social creatures, even the introverts among us, and the time we spend to build strong relationships with good people will be well worth our time.
One important part of regrouping and evaluating is, at the end of the process, give yourself a clean slate. Don't dwell on whatever mistakes you made (or think you made) last year. Don't carry your guilt forward into this coming year. Forgive yourself and move forward.
Then allow the same clean slate for other people in your life. Don't carry a grudge against the people who have hurt you or (the one that always has been hardest for me) have hurt your children. This step doesn't mean you have to trust them again; you still need healthy and solid boundaries in your relationships with them. But don't hold on to previous offenses. Start with a new outlook and give them the grace that you want other people to give you.
Then cement this attitude by starting a new habit. I said earlier that I’m not a fan of yearly resolutions, but I did run across advice to start one new habit as part of my periodic evaluations. I discovered that it really does help to do that every so often. Make it a small habit that doesn’t require a bit shift to your life. Something as simple as walking the dog for 10 minutes every day can have a big benefit. One year, I stopped checking my email until after breakfast, and discovered that the one small change lowered my morning stress quite a bit. One friend set her alarm 15 minutes earlier to give her time to rad for a few minutes before staring her day. Another started using the Pomodoro Technique to organize her working day. Both of them found that the changes had unexpected and outsize benefits.
The most positive changes (based solely on what I and my friends have seen) seem to be habits that get us out in nature and/or increase exercise. Connecting to the outside world seems to help reduce stress and connect us to the cycle of life. It can be something more elaborate, such as a camping trip, or something small, such as spending more time in a garden or tending house plants. Hiking and walking have the added benefit of increasing exercise, which has all sorts of mental health benefits.
What you do is not nearly so important as the fact that you do something. The point of adding a new habit is twofold. First, it stretches your limits just enough to encourage change, but not enough to be daunting. Second, keeping it a small habit makes it more likely that you’ll be able to sustain it and feel successful. Never discount the importance of even a small win in your life. Being able to point to tangible success can give you an important boost in self-confidence that leads to other changes.
Taking on the task of being a stepparent or foster parent is admirable, but it will be in many ways the most challenging project that you have ever undertaken. Take some time this year to pause, regroup, and plan your priorities this year. The process may prove to be the best way you have of meeting the challenges of your life and enjoying improved family relationships.